Pintxos (pronounced pinchos): it’s the Basque region’s answer to tapas and a more extravagant, elaborate and eccentric display of delectables i’d never seen, until i arrived in San Sebastian.
In San Sebastian any bar worth its salty anchovy has pintxos lined up buffet or banquet-style on large platters and plates. You tend to pay and eat on a kind of bar tab system: the waiter either clocks what you order and charges you as you leave, or you keep the toothpicks that many pintxos are pinned to and are charged accordingly. It’s a little ad hoc, as are the pintxos. But that’s all part of the fun and games.
I’m inspired to write about my pintxos experience because i’m working on an article for The Australian Financial Review about the day i spent with Elena Arzak — of Arzak restaurant fame — which began eating pintxos in San Sebastian at 11am. Plus, tomorrow i’m going to a pintxos party at Sydney’s Movida restaurant as part of the Good Food Month, where i’m sure it’ll take me no time to find my pintxos groove.
In San Sebastian locals snack on them regularly, but in moderation, throughout the day. They’re a steal, at a few Euros each. And they’re mostly savoury, but often so tricked up that they look like fancy bite-sized cream-puffed desserts. Pastry cases or wedges of baguette are often the base, which are piled high with just about anything edible.
Seafood doused in rich sauce and superfluous daubes of creamy mayonnaise were my particular favourite. Tiny sardines, anchovies and peppers are often draped over the top. Jamon — Spanish ham, legs of which are usually hanging by the hoof behind the bar — makes a regular showing. As does just about anything deep-fried: croquettas — with jamon, or mushroom, or both — are as ubiquitous as the Mediterranean sunshine, and make you smile just as much.
It’s like walking into a gastronomic wonderland — the folktale of the magic porridge pot that never stopped cooking, springs to mind — where the pintxos platters are forever replenished with fancier, higher, jaw-dropping combinations.
If you’re looking for a healthy option, however, good luck. My seriously gluten intolerant travel companion was pretty much stumped on our first night out in San Sebastian. Her dietary predicament meant she could barely eat anything from those bars bathed in bread-topped, pastry-filled, fried foods. She couldn’t partake in pintxos, and i wouldn’t out of sympathy of her plight.
Given pintxos is a culturally significant part of a stay in San Sebastian — and you stand out like a lump in the custard — if you don’t hop from bar to bar sampling this delicious way of life, we felt fairly miserable about out dilemma. Determined not to let it get the better of us, I hit the food pages of the San Sebastian section of my faithful Lonely Planet’s Discover Spain, and Facebooked a foodie friend who was visiting family in San Sebastian at that very point in time. In doing so, I reckon we found three of the best bars and gluten-free pintxos in town.
Here are our top pintxos bars and bites:
Bar Goiz Argi: for its gambas a la plancha (prawns skewers cooked on a hotplate). (C/ Fermin Calbeton 4)
Bar Borda Berri: for its veal cheeks in red wine, crispy pig’s ears, and creamy risotto (C/ Fermin Calbeton 12)
Bar Ganbara: for its grilled cepes (wild mushrooms) topped with egg yolk and flakes of salt — possibly the most expensive pintxos in town, but worth it. (C/ San Jeronimo 21)
If decadent, calorie laden, gluten loaded pintxos is what you crave head to Bar Haizea ( C/ Aldamar 8) for wedges of baguette topped with blue cheese several inches high and draped with an anchovy, pastry cases filled with rich saucy seafood, and deep fried cod fish bombs. (Sorry Jill, i squeezed these in while you were at the beach!)
Note: In memory of a fabulous girlie sorjourn in San Sebastian with the lovely Jill Wheeler.